Even as Julian Assange’s Release Celebrated, Deep Worries Remain for Press Freedom


  • June 25, 2024
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“Make no mistake, the vital work of national security journalists will be more difficult today than it was yesterday.”

 

By JESSICA CORBETT

Jun 25, 2024

 

Amid celebrations that a plea deal with the United States resulted in the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from a British prison, press freedom advocates on Tuesday continued to raise serious concerns about the damage done by the U.S. government’s pursuit of a journalist who helped expose state secrets and evidence of war crimes.

 

“Julian Assange faced a prosecution that had grave implications for journalists and press freedom worldwide,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of the Committee to Protect Journalists, following news of the deal.

 

“While we welcome the end of his detention,” Ginsberg added, “the U.S.’s pursuit of Assange has set a harmful legal precedent by opening the way for journalists to be tried under the Espionage Act if they receive classified material from whistleblowers. This should never have been the case.”

 

After spending seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the United Kingdom and then five more in the London’s Belmarsh Prison, Assange agreed to plead guilty to one felony to avoid more time behind bars. The 52-year-old Australian was fighting against his extradition to the United States, where he faced 18 charges under the Espionage Act and a federal computer fraud law for publishing classified material and could have been locked up for the rest of his life.

 

“With today’s guilty plea, Julian Assange stands convicted of practicing journalism, and all investigative journalists now face greater legal peril.”

 

“We are hugely relieved that Julian Assange is finally free—a long overdue victory for journalism and press freedom. He never should have spent a single day deprived of his liberty for publishing information in the public interest,” said Rebecca Vincent, Reporters Without Borders’ director of campaigns, in a statement.

 

“Nothing can undo the past 13 years, but it is never too late to do the right thing, and we welcome this move by the U.S. government,” she added. “We will continue to campaign in support of journalists around the world who find themselves targeted for national security reporting, and for reform of the U.S. Espionage Act, so that it can never again be used to target journalistic activity.”

 

Vincent’s group is among several press freedom and human rights organizations that had long called for the U.S. Department of Justice to drop the charges against Assange—and after news of the plea deal broke, several others warned of what is to come.

 

Amnesty International secretary general Agnès Callamard celebrated what the deal will mean for the WikiLeaks founder and his family—including his wife Stella Assange, who plans to seek a pardon for her husband, and their young children—but said Tuesday that “the yearslong global spectacle of the U.S. authorities hell-bent on violating press freedom and freedom of expression by making an example of Assange for exposing alleged war crimes committed by the USA has undoubtedly done historic damage.”

 

“Amnesty International salutes the work of Julian Assange’s family, campaigners, lawyers, press freedom organizations, and many within the media community and beyond who have stood by him and the fundamental principles that should govern society’s right and access to information and justice,” she added. “We will keep fighting for their full recognition and respect by all.”

Not all journalists and media outlets defended Assange, despite the precedent that his conviction could have set, and multiple Monday headlines—including at The Associated PressThe New York Times, and The Washington Post—highlighted his guilty plea. According to the BBC, Assange plans to return to Australia after finalizing the deal in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth.

 

“A plea deal would avert the worst-case scenario for press freedom, but this deal contemplates that Assange will have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “It will cast a long shadow over the most important kinds of journalism, not just in this country but around the world.”

 

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, emphasized that “with today’s guilty plea, Julian Assange stands convicted of practicing journalism, and all investigative journalists now face greater legal peril.”

 

“Exposing government secrets and revealing them in the public interest is the core function of national security journalism,” Wizner continued. “Today, for the first time, that activity was described in a guilty plea as a criminal conspiracy. And even if the current Department of Justice stays true to its assurances that the Assange case is unique and will not provide a precedent to be wielded against other publishers, we can’t be confident that future administrations will honor that commitment.”

 

“The precedent set by this guilty plea would have been far more dangerous had it been ratified by federal courts,” he added. “But make no mistake, the vital work of national security journalists will be more difficult today than it was yesterday.”

 

“Just imagine what an attorney general in a second Trump administration will think, knowing they’ve already got one guilty plea from a publisher under the Espionage Act.”

 

Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), also looked to the future, tying Assange’s deal to the November U.S. election in which Democratic President Joe Biden is set to face former Republican President Donald Trump.

 

The current administration “could have distinguished itself from Donald Trump, Biden’s openly anti-press electoral opponent, whose administration first indicted Assange,” Stern noted in a piece for the Daily Beast. “It could have dropped the case.”

 

Instead, the Biden administration opted for a plea deal that “does not add any more prison time or punishment for Assange,” Stern stressed, echoing his initial statement on the news. “Its only impact will be to legitimize the criminalization of routine journalistic conduct and encourage future administrations to follow suit—including a potential second Trump administration.”

 

In a Tuesday opinion piece for The Guardian, FPF executive director Trevor Timm wrote: “Just imagine what an attorney general in a second Trump administration will think, knowing they’ve already got one guilty plea from a publisher under the Espionage Act. Trump, after all, has been out on the campaign trail repeatedly opining about how he would like to see journalists—who he sees as ‘enemies of the people—in jail. Why the Biden administration would hand him any ammo is beyond belief.”

 

“So if the Biden administration is looking for plaudits for ending this case, they should get exactly none,” Timm asserted. “Now we can only hope this case is an aberration and not a harbinger of things to come.”

 


Jessica Corbett is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams.

This article is republished from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article.

 

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